As a girl, my wife spent hours playing in her father’s law office. She cheered with him at Denver Bronco games, hiked with him in the Colorado foothills and tagged behind him on the links, carting a child-sized set of clubs. In photographs, beside him she looks like the happiest girl in Colorado Springs.
The attention he bestowed upon his daughter made it all the harder for her to lose him to a sudden illness when she was eight. A quarter-century after his death, she still can’t talk about her dad without crying. Yet even as her sleep remains haunted by dreams of him alive, his eight-year reign helps explain why my wife functions with a degree of confidence that humbles me. In her mind, she remains his princess. “He was a wonderful father,” she says.
A reverence for fatherhood is common among the children of dead fathers. Their sorrow is often encased in a glow of memories, and those memories are often unblemished by the maturing child’s clearer-eyed view of Dad’s faults. For the children of dead fathers, the impact of his brief appearance can last a lifetime.
To hear the children of dead fathers talk about fatherhood is heart-rending but also inspiring. Their view of Dad tends to be free of satire, free of cynicism, free of disrespect. And their memories can offer insight into mysteries that living fathers ponder: How much of me would my child remember if I died today? Am I really having any impact on a five-year-old? What is the most important message I can communicate to my child?
The positive memories of these children stand apart at a time when even advocates of fatherhood measure its power in largely negative terms. Recent research into parenting has produced reams of studies about the toll exacted by dads who are divorced, deadbeat, distant, alcoholic, workaholic, abusive or just plain lazy, forcing Mom to carry the load. The premier work of David Popenoe, perhaps the most-quoted expert on fatherhood in America, is called Life Without Father.
The relentless focus on negative role models has created a recent phenomenon that could be called the defensive dad. He is the dad who scrambles to change diapers, toss balls, call the paediatrician, coach soccer and read bedtime stories not because he recognizes the power of his influence: He’s just trying to stay out of trouble. Even if he sidesteps all the pitfalls that bad-dad experts warn about, even if he attains something akin to paternal perfection, he will continue to hear the pervasive message that Dad matters less than Mom.
Having known my own father for 48 years, I’ve gained perspective from a wife who knew hers for only eight. When I call my 76-year-old Dad next, he will compliment me on this essay. He reads everything I write.
But without any hope of hearing her father say he is proud, my wife still strives to please him. In her mind, the sound of his voice still echoes, calling her smart, calling her pretty, laughing at her jokes. Twenty-five years after his praise fell silent, being worthy of it still means everything to her. Despite having thrived in the field of journalism—and having received loud hurrahs from her supportive mother—she felt called to follow the path of her father. Last year, she finished law school, passed the bar and entered the practice of law.
The first time I heard her speak about her father I understood that she was in love with him, and at that instant I started falling in love with her. As she gushed about how he had played baseball for a farm club of the Chicago White Sox, how his prosecutorial skills had won him a prestigious award from the US attorney general, how he had posthumously been named one of the outstanding lawyers in Colorado history, what I heard was elation over how much he had loved her. It occurred to me his greatest achievement had been as a father.
Little science exists about the lasting influence of dead fathers, but outcome data suggest that it is powerful. Such data show that children who lose a father fare significantly better than those whose father is alive but not present, and nearly as well as those who never lose theirs.
After years of studying the role of mothers in early life, psychoanalysts are turning with fervour to the influence of fathers. Just last year, an international consortium of Freudian analysts convened a seminar at Columbia University called “The Dead Father”, based in part on the premise that the role of the father in early childhood has been underappreciated. “The father has tended to get left out of the theorizing,” says Stuart Taylor, a Columbia University psychiatrist who helped organize the seminar.
Sigmund Freud’s description of the father as godlike, an omnipotent figure that imposes law and order, perpetuated the long-held cultural belief that Dad becomes relevant as his offspring ages. But psychiatrists increasingly realize that when a child receives love, approval and guidance from a godlike figure, the young psyche develops a crucial sense of importance, one that can outlast the early death of the father, or the eventual recognition of him as merely human.
“As if he knew he would die prematurely, not live to see me reach adulthood, my father left books for me that he inscribed in his handwriting,” Mary Gordon writes in The Shadow Man, her biography of David Gordon, the father who died when she was seven. “I never feel so prized as when I see my name in his handwriting. He has inscribed me in the world. He has never ceased to think of me.”
A month ago, Gordon won induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters on the strength of a writing career that is a tribute to the father she knew for only seven years. In story after story, Gordon has drawn reverential portraits of fathers and the heartbreak of losing them. Researching her father for the biography, she turned up painful truths—that he was an anti-Semitic Jew, for instance.
But as a dad he was extraordinary: He taught her to read when she was three, praised her agility with words and confessed that he loved her more than God—sacrilege for a radical Catholic. The devastation of his death only deepened her commitment to fulfil his vision of her. “If a father makes a daughter feel like she has a right to take her place in the larger world as an achieving person and a desirable person, as mine did, nothing can take that away,” says Gordon, 57.
Another daughter of American letters, Sylvia Plath, illustrates how damaging a father’s death can be when he failed to nurture his child. In a poem called Daddy, Plath attributed her first suicide attempt to her distant and disapproving father:
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
Published research shows an association between exceptional accomplishment and the early loss of a father. Bart Kosko exemplifies that. He was just a fun-loving kid, growing up on the same dead-end street in Kansas as I did, until his father died in a car wreck when Bart was 10. “When someone loves you that unconditionally, and it’s gone irreversibly, it’s shattering,” he says.
Yet his father had taught Bart to handle responsibility at a young age. When Bart was four, his father had shown him how to build a fuel-propelled rocket. In third grade, the boy received a shotgun for Christmas. Resisting dispensing knowledge, Bart’s father had shown how to obtain it through books. Taking his late father’s message to heart, Bart now became his own authority, teaching himself how to write music. At 17, he composed a full-length orchestral overture that won him a scholarship to the University of Southern California.
At 47, Kosko is a USC professor of electrical engineering, a lawyer and the author of several books, including a pioneering tome on fuzzy logic. “It bothers me to no end that I can’t show him what I’ve done,” says Kosko. “I think of him everyday. I remember his voice. I remember his teachings.”
Yet he doubts he’d have achieved as much if his father had lived. “He was a godlike figure, and when God died, I became stronger, more driven, more independent, maybe a little meaner,” he says.
Fathers often try to separate their professional and personal lives. But work is where men often are most effective and commanding, and stamped upon the memories of children with dead fathers are powerful images of Dad at work.
My late father-in-law did fun things with his girls. But the amusement park isn’t where his eldest girl fell in love with him. After serving as a highly decorated federal prosecutor, he joined the law firm his grandfather had started in 1893. Inside its corridors he exposed his girl to the demands and rewards of serious work. In broad outlines he explained his purpose as a lawyer and the value of high standards. Explicit in these conversations was his belief that she and her younger sister would find success and fulfilment in careers of their own.
This was a radical departure for a man who had believed that women didn’t belong in the workplace. The softening of that position, by all accounts, had everything to do with the birth of his daughters. At a celebration of the naming of his firm’s first female partner, a woman told my wife something she never forgot: “This wouldn’t have happened if not for you.”
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